Summer is here and if the idea of visiting another amusement park or sitting on a beach doesn't motivate you to make vacation plans, consider a good, old-fashioned road trip. With the open road in front of you and time built into your itinerary to explore some small-town attractions along the way, your family can truly experience America and its history before they realize they've learned something.
Here are four family-friendly, educational road trips that I've put together from personal experience and from interviews with some of my favorite family travel bloggers.
Central New York's Off-Beat Attractions
Start your central New York road trip in Herkimer, an hour and a half west of Albany and home of the Herkimer Diamond Mines and Erie Canal Cruises. Spend the morning digging for diamonds, then experience the engineering feat that is the Erie Canal as you take an entertaining boat tour through a working lock. If you have a baseball enthusiast in the family, make sure to take a 45 minute drive south from Herkimer to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.
Your next stop is Binghamton, the Carousel Capital of America. There are fewer than 170 antique carousels remaining in the United States and Canada, and six are in the Greater Binghamton area. The carousels are all in well-kept parks, fully operational and free to the public. So reach for the brass ring. In between frolicking in the parks, stop at Sharkey's for spiedies (skewered, marinated meat), the local specialty.
Drive on to Corning and take some time at the Corning Museum of Glass. According to Sherri May of Sherri May's Traveling Classroom, the best part of a road trip is stopping along the way to check out a small town's "claim to fame." Sherri's boys made Christmas ornaments in the glass blowing and glass forming class, and she calls the Corning Glass Museum one of the highlights of her family's road trip to Niagara Falls.
If you have more time, continue your road trip north through the Finger Lakes region. But with an overwhelming number of things to see and do, especially for families who appreciate the outdoors, the Finger Lakes should really be a trip unto itself.
Asheville to Nashville
When visiting Asheville, NC, you can't miss the Biltmore. Walk through America's Largest Home with their excellent self-guided audio tour and you'll feel as though you have truly experienced what it was like to live there. You can also enjoy the expansive gardens, the winery, and the farm, or spend time hiking, biking, kayaking, horseback riding and more on the 8,000 acre estate.
Get up the next day and drive into Smokey Mountain National Park. Don't miss Cades Cove, an 11-mile loop with several opportunities to pull off and enjoy a variety of historic buildings, hiking, wildlife and the smokey-blue scenery for which the mountains are famous. You have two options driving out of the park: Drive directly into tourist trap heaven or bypass the hub-bub and head for the interstate. If you choose the first option, you'll head into the Gatlinburg/Pigeon Forge area. Love it or hate it, this strip (Route 71/441, aka Pigeon Forge Parkway) offers some of the most unique tourist attractions I've ever seen. You'll find an Elvis museum, Titanic museum, adventure golf, comedy shows, go-karts/action parks, wax museum, magic shows, sporting/adventure outfitters, helicopter rides, dude ranches, dinner theater (Dixie Stampede, Murder-Mystery, Lumberjack Feud) - even a breakfast theater! - and a bajillion places to buy your souvenir T-shirt. And there's Dollywood, in case you do want a day at an amusement park.
Continuing west to Knoxville, TN, you can stop at the Discovery Center or the Knoxville Zoo. Both are on the small side and fine options for a half-day stretch of the legs. After this, you'll hit the road for a bit. When you need a snack/bathroom break, pull off at Crossville, TN and check out the (unofficial) world's largest tree house. About 10 minutes off I-40, it's well worth the detour. I was absolutely fascinated by this 10-story treehouse built by a minister from salvaged lumber.
Your next stop is Burgess Falls State Park in Sparta, TN. Be sure to check out their Butterfly Garden and download the Butterfly Checklist for the kids. From there you're less than two hours to Nashville.
Ponies and Cowboys in Kansas and Oklahoma
Jody Halsted of Family Rambling took her family on a true "where the Buffalo roam" road trip, visiting Higley Cabin (where Home on the Range was written), the Hollenberg Pony Express station and the geographical center of America.
Near the town of Athol, KS, you'll find Higley Cabin. "To eyes used to large houses and spacious buildings the Higley Cabin is very tiny. The building was, amazingly, never torn down and stands today, much similar to how it looked when Dr. Higley built it," says Jody.
Heading east to Hanover, KS, your next stop is the only remaining Pony Express stop still standing in its original location: Hollenberg Pony Express Station. Some say it's haunted. There are hands-on displays and Jody's family loved learning about the daily lives led by the people who passed through and who worked at Hollenberg Station.
Due south is Wichita, KS and a visit to Exploration Place. This summer they have a Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination exhibit. If you're there on a Friday or Saturday morning, check out the Historic Wichita Trolly Tour. The 1 1/2 hour narrated tour on the 1925-style trolley winds along the Arkansas River and into downtown, Midtown and Old Town to some of Wichita's most historic neighborhoods.
Stonehenge and Giant Trees in the Pacific Northwest
Portland, OR, and the surrounding areas are an absolute delight in the summer with tons of attractions for active families. The Portland Aerial Tram is a great place to start, offering spectacular views of the city, Mount Hood, and Mount St. Helens.
From Portland, head east to Maryhill, WA, and find the Maryhill Museum of Art. Check out the Stonehenge replica and Maryhill Loops Road, the first paved road in the Pacific Northwest, both built by Samuel Hill. You'll also enjoy exploring the surrounding gardens, hiking trails, wineries and history.
Next, head toward Yakima and have a burger at Miner's Drive In. Then it's onward into gorgeous Mount Rainier National Park. Drive the Scenic Byways Loop where you'll experience unparalleled scenery. Stop at Grove of the Patriarchs to walk among trees that are more than 25 feet in circumference, with some over 1,000 years old. Your kids will also enjoy Boulder Cave as well as the lava flows and volcanic rock formations. If you have some time to stay in this amazing park, take advantage of the camping, hiking, fishing, and boating.
Exploring America by car is educational, inspirational, and nostalgic. No matter how much time you can allocate for a road trip, it will never quite seem like enough.
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